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Seb FoxAllen

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Being The White Guy in The Picture

Posted: 06/18/2013 5:25 pm

Over the past several months, many Twitter users across Canada have found themselves following a series of tweets grouped under the hashtag #TheRosedaleClub. They emanate from small events hosted at private residences in Toronto's downtown, pairing suits, scotch, and cigars with past guest speakers including Andrew Coyne, Adam Giambrone, and Jonathan Kay.

Today, The Rosedale Club -- which has no formal website, instead operating through personal tweets, Facebook event pages, and a Gmail address -- announced that their next meeting would be held on July 1, and feature "guest of honour" Conrad Black.

Sounds interesting.

As the lists of speakers and topics has begun to accumulate, however, many have begun to express apprehension about the inclusiveness of the gatherings, spurred by factors including their semi-public invitation mechanism, stated dress code, diversity of speakers, and, predictably, pictures tweeted from inside the venues.

Inevitably, these critiques culminated in the all-too-familiar refrain: "What's with all the white guys?"

Before getting too deep into the weeds, it seems useful to offer a small disclaimer about the term "white guys." I understand that its use generalizes both the makeup of attendees of these particular events, and the broader phenomena this post alludes to. With that in mind, I hope you will afford me the liberty to use it here as a blanket descriptor for infinitely more complex social hierarchies.


I have been the white guy in this picture, and I know what it's like to look back with discomfort about the message it sends.

Groups of white men, and the hierarchy of intersectional variants that they embody, are recurring cultural signifiers of exclusionary structures past and present. They are divorced from the intent of their participants, and remain core physical and psychological barriers to those standing outside them.

This is not a call for tokenism or pandering: people of similar visible characteristics are as free to form bonds and friendships and associations as anyone else. No one is suggesting that white men be staggered across rooms in order to conform to a contemporary impulse towards perceived inclusiveness.

But white guys weaving though positions and institutions of power must begin to perceive and take ownership of the signals that their actions and inactions send to others. They must -- both individually and collectively -- be open to internal discussions about the advantages and responsibilities they carry with them when they order a coffee, or apply for a job, or walk into a public meeting.

These conversations must not be rooted in a perception of outside pressure, or appearances, or rewards. They must be rooted in a concerted effort to recalibrate the structures of power in our societies, and, quite necessarily, an honest and eager desire to insist that others occupy roles that people with our privileges may like to have filled, or platforms we may like to have populated.

So what can someone like me do to make events and spaces like The Rosedale Club more successful?

If participating in the planning stages, don't be afraid to tell fellow organizers that you would like to feature experts of colour (or, say, female panellists) for the specific purpose of broadening the range of experiences and expertise in your discussion. Anecdotally, misplaced fears of perceived tokenism can keep people from bringing up concerns about inclusion in the first place. Understand it is there, and address it head on.

If mid-event you find yourself in a gaggle of privilege, be conscious of it. Grab a fellow goose and introduce him to someone outside the circle who you know to work in a similar field, or have a similar sense of humour. Be clear with yourself that your intent isn't to be a nice guy, or to feel more comfortable with the evening's eventual Instagram feed, but to build new allies and foster new allegiances.

More fundamentally, be conscious of the ways in which your actions can be decoded, regardless of the intent behind them. If you want to, say, set a dress code for an event, that's fine. I can understand a desire to lend a measure of formality and gravitas to the agenda.

But also understand that the decision to enforce a dress code is, for those standing outside The Club, a powerful signifier of power, exclusion, and oppression. It conjures the same associations of overt disenfranchisement that marginalized 20-somethings witnessed in their parents' and grandparents' private moments, and the subtler systemic challenges that recur within their own.

We all have an instinct to rationalize behaviours we consider innocuous or well-intentioned, but part of an awareness of privilege recognizes that the conditioned interpretations of others are just as valid as our reflexive shields of intent.

If building bridges is what we strive for (and I think it should be), these concepts are but a scratch on the drafting sheet. Underpinning our broader efforts must be a commitment to disrupting estates of privilege not as martyrs or victims but as curious, engaged participants in an insistence that cooperation in struggle strengthens our human capacities, not weakens them.

 

Follow Seb FoxAllen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@purpledocket

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